By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Some of the largest investment firms on Wall Street are gone. The country's auto industry is on the verge of collapse. Banks are shedding jobs. But in these doom-and-gloom times, there is someone who's hiring: your local military recruiter.
The economic downturn and rising unemployment rate are making the military a more attractive option, Pentagon officials say. In some cases, the peace of mind that comes with good benefits and a regular paycheck is overcoming concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which any new enlistee is likely to join.
"There's no way to sugarcoat it: We're a nation at war," said Lt. Col. Michael Bennett, who commands the Maryland Army National Guard's recruiting battalion. "But we offer a stability of income that a lot of employers can't guarantee right now."
Since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973, recruiters have generally struggled in times of private-sector job growth and done well during recessions. But in addition to the recent downturn, they say they are benefiting from better news out of Iraq, where U.S. casualities are down, and from the election of Barack Obama (D), who has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq.
The active-duty Army, which like other branches has increased benefits and added recruiters, said last month that it had recruited more than 80,000 soldiers during the past fiscal year, the third year in a row it has met its recruiting goals. Good news for the Army has coincided with terrible news elsewhere. The unemployment rate has jumped from 4.8 to 6.5 percent in the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During that time, the ranks of the unemployed grew by 2.8 million, to 10.1 million.
At a news conference last month, David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the military does "benefit when things look less positive in civil society. I don't have the Dow Jones banner running up behind me here this morning, but that is a situation where more people are willing to give us a chance. And I think that's the big difference: People are willing to listen to us."
And for those listening, recruiters are likely to talk about how they're hiring, even if no one else is. Air National Guard Master Sgt. Robert Sweeny, a recruiter based in Baltimore, said that since the economy tanked, "we've changed the strategy a little bit." Instead of highlighting only college tuition assistance and job training, his recruiters also talk about "health and life insurance benefits that companies are cutting back on," he said.
Master Sgt. Veronica Womack, who processes recruits for the Maryland Army National Guard, said some soldiers-to-be have told her that the change in commander in chief was a factor in their decision to enlist.
"For the last couple of years, they were unsure about the direction the military was going in and if it was really for them," she said. One new enlistee told her that he joined because "the economy was bad, and he felt there was a real change since the election" in the direction of the country.
Another prospect, who worked in real estate, said the housing market had gotten so bad that he wanted to join for extra income, she said.
The military's recent recruiting success can also be attributed to other factors. After the active Army missed its recruiting mark by 7,000 in 2005, it raised the maximum age for recruits from 35 to 42.
Enlistment bonuses have also increased and can be can be as high as $40,000. The Army estimates that the compensation for a military police sergeant, including housing, food and health care, comes to $47,000. And the new G.I. Bill, which goes into effect Aug. 1, will cover the tuition at any public university and provide a living stipend.
Meanwhile, recruiting has become even more vital as the military plans to expand so it can relieve the strain on troops and their families. The active Army is to grow by 65,000 soldiers, to 547,000, by 2010. And the Marine Corps is to add 27,000, for a total of 202,000, by 2011.
Even before the economy started to decline, a Defense Department survey in June found that 11 percent of people between 16 to 21 said they would "definitely" or "probably" serve in the armed forces, up 2 percent from last year.
The Army has adjusted its advertising campaign to target not only prospective soldiers but also their Vietnam-era parents, who were seen as the main obstacles to military service. "If your son or daughter wants to talk about the Army, listen," the narrator of a television commercial intones. "You made them strong. We'll make them Army strong."
Aware that the wars had transformed the Guard and reserves into a key component of the fighting force, the National Guard also launched an ad campaign. Instead of promoting only college benefits, its television commercials play up patriotic themes and depicted guardsmen less as college students than as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and at home fighting fires and rescuing people from raging floodwaters. "When your country calls, you go. Proudly," a guardsman says, soaring music in the background.
"It's more than money for college," another soldier featured in the ads says. "It's built my character and given me a sense of accomplishment."
At the Mall in Columbia, the Maryland Army and Air National Guards have set up a kiosk for the holidays, where recruiters hand out Hacky Sacks and bumper stickers. There's an Xbox and a television that continuously plays a National Guard ad.
But no matter what sorts of benefits recruiters offer, or how slick the ad campaign, one of the main draws continues to be service to country, said Sgt. 1st Class Thad Copeland, an Army recruiter based in Alexandria. Even if someone is joining because he can't find a job elsewhere, he needs to know that decision could mean a trip to the front lines.
"I know what your first question is, and the answer is yes," Copeland tells his prospects. "You are getting deployed."